Yesterday was the first public day at the Royal Hospital showground in Chelsea for visitors to the 2012 RHS Flower Show. Given the fact that this is the year of the Diamond Jubilee and the London Olympics the atmosphere was lively - the sense of occasion at the first big event of the summer season augmented by the feeling that it marked the opening of an important summer for the capital and the country.
Copper sculpture in the garden by Andy Sturgeon
I last visited two years ago and the sense of the unreal that the show gardens engender had not diminished - see my reaction to this aspect of the show here.
The perfection of the planting and structural work never fails to astonish - the glossy sheen of these otherwise unattainable gardens lures visitors and the media to SW3 every year for precisely the purpose of marvelling at the effect produced; an overseas visitor in earshot was vehement in her denial that the gardens could possibly be conjured out of thin air in just three weeks. Well, three weeks and a bit - the clipped pear tree she was looking at must be 150 years old, parked in a hole in the ground in London for two brief weeks of its life.
The garden by Arne Maynard
The show gardens have the intense attraction for us that other great cultural icons have, with the difference that these particular icons are perishable - they occupy the same space as other fleeting one-offs - performance art, concerts and sports fixtures.
A garden evoking a shepherd's hut in Central Europe
There is often the sense when going round the showground that you are seeing the same plants, planting combinations and hard-landscape ideas cropping up in show gardens all over the site. One plant invariably appears in so many gardens that it becomes crowned the 'Chelsea-must-have-plant' of the year. I have seen the black-leaved cow parsley given the moniker this year, and indeed it popped up in a number of gardens. This plant, Anthriscus sylvestris 'Ravenswing' has been doing the rounds for a few years, but a plant new to me that seemed to be everywhere is Centaurea 'Jordy' - this deep purple knapweed was most evident on the garden by Arne Maynard, but was spotted in many other places.
The garden by Tom Hoblyn - my favourite of his offerings over the years
It's all to do with fashion of course, and fashion in gardens runs deeper than the occasional duplication of plant material. There was a distinct sense that at least three of the large gardens were more or less interchangeable - each has its devotees, but in design terms there was distinct convergence.
A wilder-looking garden by Sarah Price
We'll come to what the style embodies later, but the real interest lies in why it happens at all.
In biology the term 'convergent evolution' refers to the way in which animals or plants on different evolutionary pathways come to resemble each other in order to exploit the same ecological niche. Whether the niche involves food supply, shelter or climatic suitability, the species involved come to look like and behave like each other because that particular form is the best adapted to survive the environmental conditions that prevail. You can see where I'm heading with this.
Andy Sturgeon's beautiful garden for M&G Investments
Show gardens at Chelsea are expensive to build. In fact they are phenomenally expensive. To create something that has the appearance of permanence, with both a past and a future beyond its hyperreal present involves at least a year of planning, the coordination of building teams and plant specialists from around the UK (and, often, beyond), the shipping of enormous established plants around the world and immense amounts of labour in the final three weeks in order to bring the planned creation to life. This all has to be funded by the sponsors, who not unreasonably like to see a gold medal at the very least propped up on the garden mantelpiece once judging is done. Those slugging it out for the Best in Show gong have to live up to very high expectations indeed. The pressure to achieve is precisely the sort of environmental factor that causes swallows and swifts to look and behave similarly, sharks and killer whales to have the same tools for dealing with prey.
The Australians always come up with something a bit different
Once a particular 'style' is successful and wins at Chelsea, there is huge public interest, the particular features become disseminated and reused by other designers in less lofty settings and the fashionable becomes more mainstream. This takes years to occur, however, because in evolutionary terms we are dealing with a long generation period. Plants and animals can adapt in every generation, which in many cases is less than a year. How often do people redesign their gardens? Once a decade at most, I'd suggest. In the meantime the showmen and women at Chelsea are pursuing the style that is most likely to get them a win. I'm not suggesting they are calculating the odds, but let's say the design DNA is working through them to deliver success - the Selfish Gene of fashionable reknown in tandem with the external pressures of the marketplace. It is a fascinating thing to watch in action.
This is by Chris Beardshaw - an attempt to highlight the artificiality of show-gardening, I hope
And so what of the style? Well, since the notable designers of the current generation, and especially Tom Stuart-Smith (not showing this year) have been working a rich seam of frothy herbaceous planting in soft colours set against structural blobs of clipped evergreen for a number of years, it isn't surprising to see this as the dominant style in the biggest and most expensive show gardens.
The maquis of southern Europe transported to SW3
Lightened with the movement of fine grasses, tied to the traditional English garden through the use of peonies, roses and lavender and held in place with slabs of honed limestone, cobble pavements, hedging and pleached trees these gardens are direct descendents of the Arts and Crafts style that has proved so flexibly suited to the English love of plants, desire for structure and deeply-rooted nostalgia. Indeed, it is possible to read the sequence of these show gardens at Chelsea as a succession of rooms in a single compartmentalised Arts and Crafts garden - there are differences, certainly, but the feelings they arouse, the memories they plumb are the same in each case and the similarities significantly outnumber the differences. In their contemporary reworking (and we could discuss the word 'contemporary' for hours!) of the Arts and Crafts style these gardeners have created something else, and I am calling it 'New Manorial' - a quirky evocation of the country house garden familiar from a century's worth of Country Life back issues.
My favourite of the large gardens - by Joe Swift
Is this a problem? Not necessarily - they all look astounding, but my favourite garden was a markedly different take on the theme, with a more daring palette of plants. I suspect that with such a preponderance of New Manorialist gardens this year the pressure next year will be to create something very different in feel. Let's hope so, because that could deliver a truly thrilling Flower Show, in the centenary of its move to Chelsea.
Best in Show - Cleve West for the second year, and one of three or four gardens that had very similar treatments of hard-landscaping and plants